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A Ted Kennedy & Fidel Castro Meeting?

Since Fidel Castro's death, we dug into the Ted Kennedy Oral History transcripts and found a fascinating event where two of his foreign policy advisers went to Havana from December 1974-January 1975 and met with Castro in the hopes of a future meeting between Castro and Senator Kennedy. What you read might surprise you:

Jane Kalicki (foreign policy adviser):

I visited with Fidel years afterwards, as part of a delegation of course. Here I was with a bunch of other people—We were looking into political prisoner issues. The Cubans were, “Fine. If we want to talk about political prisons, we’ll talk to you about political prisons.” We were called into Fidel’s office after midnight, the usual kind of treatment, and a good three-quarters of Fidel’s discussion with the group was, as you would expect, a monologue, directed at Senator Kennedy through me…About the Kennedy family. It was just a mixture. There was no big revelation that I can offer you, I’m sorry to say, but it was a mixture of huge respect for the Kennedys and a sense of connection and, paradoxically, hope. Given what he went through in the [Cuban Missile] Crisis and otherwise, you would think maybe it’s a little bit different, but it was an attraction, not in any way a negative or a hostile view but the opposite, an attraction, a respect, a sense of connection with this family, which I found mesmerizing, as he could be at that time. To see that firsthand and then to see the results over and over again of the Senator’s ability to help Cubans who were hurt by that regime, it’s almost on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand, like our discussion on China and Taiwan. You have a special connection to one place, but it then makes possible other actions on the other side of the ledger, so to speak.

Dr. Janet Heininger: Success breeds success.

Kalicki: Yes, but you would think that if there was that hostility from the early ’60s, no way would they do anything for that family. No, it’s the opposite.

Heininger: But you’ve also got Kennedy being one of the most prominent voices in the mid-’70s, calling for a lifting of the embargo.

Kalicki: Oh, absolutely. He did a lot and he believes in that, but I would venture to say that above and beyond doing the right thing on the policy, there’s a sense of the family and it is larger than life. If you intersect with them, you may have been on a totally opposite side but for some reason, you will do things and you will respond to them in a special way. I just saw a lot of that. It’s true in his politics too. Think of the Barry Goldwaters and the Orrin Hatches of this world. You can go down the list of ideological opposites and how, personally, they love each other and they respect each other and they do things for each other and they agree with each other, specifically on points of public policy. You see the international dimension of that too. To me it’s in the department of political alchemy, almost, that you have these things develop.


Mark Schneider (Peace Corp director: Kennedy staffer):

When we got involved in Cuba as a policy issue, part of it was also the concern about political prisoners in Cuba. While we thought the way to bring about change in Cuba was not to maintain the embargo but to engage, we also politically had to be concerned about the reality of human rights violations in Cuba. When we went to Cuba the first time, we went with essentially a mandate to raise that issue. Bob Hunter and I went and were able to visit what I would call the halfway house of political prisoners coming out. This was not the high-security prison where they were held most of the time, but after they completed their sentences or were ill, they went into this place, so we met them there. We got out about 40 prisoners...

Kennedy would have liked to have gone. We definitely wanted to try to use it as a way not only to fact find, in the sense of what the conditions were, but more to find out what space there was to try to negotiate some political opening in Cuba. This is the outline that I wrote to myself, which is in Spanish and lists things like thanks; what we’ve seen on our visit; the note—We had a gift but I don’t remember what it was; President Kennedy; and a personal message from the Senator expressing interest in seeing relations improve and bringing benefit to both countries from new relations. The trip was part of that effort. The outline continues with the government’s reaction to the possibility of a trip by Kennedy; the objective being humanitarian; the role the Senator could play; information on the Cuban government’s attitude with regard to a series of humanitarian issues: reunification of families, visits of families, political prisoners. At that time there was also an issue about access for the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] to jails.

Dr. Janet Heininger: Those ultimately did happen after this.

Schneider: Yes. It also included access to medical assistance for prisoners, sometimes very specialized; the idea that Kennedy could play a role in the Congress, in legislation, public opinion, in talking to Henry Kissinger if there was a possibility, some opening; information on the economic blockade, the kinds of conditions that would be necessary to permit that to be removed. Remember, he was already on record as saying, politically, this was what should be done…

Heininger: What was his reaction? Did he see Kennedy as speaking for the government or recognize that he was—

Schneider: He definitely saw him as his own person. We talked about Cuba’s relations with the Soviet Union, sugar, Guantanamo, and then there were elements of the current economic program in Cuba that we wanted to talk about. We wanted to know what kinds of significant actions in the humanitarian area, as a result of the trip, were possibilities, why they were desirable, how they could take place, and what they would do. We said that Kennedy’s going would not be possible until the blockade was lifted..What I have here is that he said, “Kennedy’s emissary stated, ‘Not until the blockade is lifted. Someone other than Kennedy could perhaps discuss the modality of negotiations.’”

Heininger: Kennedy recognized that he wasn’t going to go until after the embargo was lifted?

Schneider: No. This is what Fidel said. That was my outline. This is pretty much going through that outline: Fidel expressed appreciation for the visit, and then reviewed the discussion of the possibility of Senator Kennedy arriving, which already had been discussed through other emissaries, in New York with me and Frank Mankiewicz. He said that he would be welcome, that it would be of great interest to the Senator to increase his image in Latin America, the international community, particularly for his progressive policies in the past, best seen in his attitude toward Chile and Brazil and Latin America in general.

I raised the matter concerning Kennedy’s role as the chairman of the Refugee Subcommittee, that humanitarian issues raised the possibility of some development regarding family visits and situations, humanitarian needs, sickness, death, et cetera. Fidel said it was taking place, that his government was facilitating that kind of travel, but said that it would be absurd to consider this as a matter of forced negotiations in any way. There was no reason to, because it was not the government’s policy to oppose such family visits where clear humanitarian issues existed. I said that this was not known in the U.S., which also had active restrictions, and that perhaps it was an issue that was being used by groups opposing relations with Cuba, to hold up an example of lack of compassion on Cuba’s part. I said that if they were willing to do more in this area, Kennedy would be able to do more himself in terms of trying to improve relations with Cuba. Castro did not express much appearance of willingness to move in this area, although he did say that something symbolic in the form of a statement on the subject could be possible. Then he talked about family reunification.

Heininger: Meaning he, Castro, would be willing to make a public statement?

Schneider: Right. In terms of expanding family reunification opportunities for Cubans who wanted to emigrate to the United States…And then, in the question of going to Cuba, they would have no problems with that. I don’t believe this, but he said he had no problems with allowing Cubans to come back to visit. He said while there was concern of counter-revolution, only a very small minority of those who had left had no political ideals and were now professional terrorists. Only ten percent, perhaps, of the Cubans who had left were still strongly opposed to the revolution. That’s a little bit understated. But he also said that the issue of tourism, massive immigration to Cuba, would also have to be examined.

Heininger: What were your impressions of Castro?

Schneider: He’s very smart. He knew more about domestic politics in the United States than most political people in the United States do. He clearly followed it and knew the parties, knew the candidates, knew who their constituencies were, why they were taking the positions that they did. He was really well informed. He also said the United States was being isolated as Cuba developed relations with other countries in Latin America. As always, he said the point of the United States is that the United States—and this can be applied right now—needs to acquire better Latin American relations, and that the renewal of relations with Cuba could well be the road by which this could be accomplished, justified.

Heininger: At the same time, we were supporting a bunch of military dictatorships.

Schneider: Right, without any question. He said the way that the way this should be done would be for the U.S. to take unilateral action, removing the blockade/embargo. Then, without any quid pro quo—that is, without any stated, negotiated, formal quid pro quo—there would be a Cuban response that would be unilateral action in terms of humanitarian concerns. He said, for example, that the U.S. had not appreciated the gesture Cuba had made with respect to the hijacking agreement, and that this was a substantial benefit for the U.S.—which would affect opinion. The hijackings of U.S. planes were of little importance to Cuba, but, he said, when they did it, there was no counterpart or gesture on the part of the United States. He cited the [Sol Myron] Linowitz report, which was all about relations with Latin America, including Cuba, regarding removal of the embargo as just elementary justice. With respect to the Kennedy visit, he emphasized great respect for Senator Kennedy. They were following his policies and political activities, reflecting their view of him being a major progressive force in the United States, so a trip by Kennedy would raise the image of Latin America. The trip would be part of the process of setting the stage for renewal of relations. They would like to do whatever was possible to help him develop the role of working toward that in the United States. He would be treated with the highest possible respect, would have the attention of the highest leaders of the country, and a speech at a university or another auditorium would not be inconvenient, particularly if he were to talk about Chile.

Heininger: Castro wanted him to come.

Schneider: Yes. He saw no reason why some gesture might not be possible in the area of humanitarian concerns, at the appropriate time. The trip obviously should take place at the optimum time. We talked about the kinds of exchange of technical experts that would take place as the process of opening relations occurred and about release of political prisoners.

When I mentioned this originally, during one of the early comments, Fidel simply skipped it entirely. Later, when I brought it back up in relation to the development of their constitution, greater institutional protection for human rights, which was generally becoming a greater issue in the region, and the diminishing numbers of political prisoners for years, he answered more fully. He said political prisoners came about at the beginning of the revolution because, given the profound social change that had occurred, the arrests had occurred in a counter-revolution. He said that it was rehabilitation; that no other country had such a program, with political and other prisoners engaged in work, for which they received the same salary as any other worker; and that the vast majority of them had been liberated, following rehabilitation. He said probably only 20 percent remained, 80 percent were now free. 

In the room was the Foreign Minister, Carlos Rafael Rodríguez. He gave 2,600 as the original number, and admitted to dealing with their executions, but he added that it was under due procedure—There never was torture—adamant that torture would never be accepted. If there were some excesses at the beginning, it was not accepted, and that people had been punished. He said some had suffered torture and that was not permitted to occur.


Robert Hunter (foreign policy adviser):

Mark Schneider and I went down. I organized it through the Cubans. Kennedy gave permission. This was at a time when one was looking at the possibility of a changed relationship because a lot was happening. Détente and a number of other positive things had happened with the Soviets. I got the bright idea of going down over Christmas break in 1974, and Kennedy said fine, so we organized this through the Cubans in New York. Of course their goal was to get him to come for a visit, the brother of a slain President, who had done the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think Kissinger got cold feet during that period about improving relations with Cuba. He had other things on his plate. 

Anyway, I took Mark along, and we went down. Of course you couldn’t fly directly to Cuba. We flew to Mexico City and got a special travel document. We had to turn in our passports. You don’t get any stamps, but this had all been worked out with the U.S. government, with Kissinger. He knew we were going. I was very careful about those things. We had their approval to do this, because the last thing you wanted was, “Somebody from Kennedy’s staff went down,” et cetera. We had Kissinger’s personal approval.

I did that another time, when Kennedy was going to go to Portugal, at the end of ’74, on part of a major trip, and that was going to be the end point. I was at a dinner in a Georgetown kitchen somewhere. The Assistant Secretary for Europe, Art Hartman, was there, and he was fulminating about Portugal going to the Communists, as he put it. That was when Kissinger was making all this fuss about Portugal going Communist, which was BS. Hartman was going on about Kennedy going. “What a terrible thing this is” and everything. I reported back and Kennedy said, “What do I do? I guess I won’t go.” That was before I understood the background, all the Portuguese in Massachusetts. I later figured it out. So I said, “You want to do it? Go see Kissinger.” So he went to see Kissinger. 

At that point my judgment was that Kissinger wanted to be Secretary of State for life. He thought he could be Secretary of State under Kennedy, if Kennedy were to become President. I mean, if [Andrei] Gromyko did it, he could do it. Anything Kennedy wanted, Kissinger gave it to him. So Kennedy asked for this, and Kissinger said, “Fine, do it.”

…We went down there. We were staying in a government hotel, and we had our minders. Mark is very inventive, very assertive about doing the things you do for a leading Senator. We went to see a clinic. At one point we were in the car with our Cuban guide, another “minder,” and I said, “Mark and I would like to visit an average Cuban family.” Mark said, “I want to go into that block of flats.” We stopped, went in, and he said, “All right, I want to go to this one, number 3B.” We went up, knocked on the door, went in, talked to the people, and they had a certain amount of good furniture, a TV, a small but well-kept apartment. You have to understand that the Cubans have done a lot better than one would have expected. Their medical system, for example, did quite a lot despite all the embargos. There are drugs on the international market that the Cubans have produced in their own laboratories.We had picked an apartment at random so that it wasn’t a Potemkin village thing. Mark is fantastic at that. Often we would be driving along and he’d say, “I want to go see that.” There was a clinic and he said, “It looks like a clinic. Let’s stop. I want to go to that clinic.” “All right, we’ll go to that clinic.” We went in and met the doctors and saw what they were doing. They were talking about what they were doing, and there were patients there. On New Year’s Eve we went to the Copacabana. While we were there, just as we arrived, they had the 75th anniversary of the introduction of baseball in Cuba…Anyway, so we didn’t know if and when we would see Castro. You never know. They do it Soviet style: you never know when your meeting will come or whether they’ll come at all, and then “Hurry up! You have to go to the meeting.” We had four hours with him, along with his National Security Advisor, whose name I can’t remember now but who is an incredibly smart guy. We met with him separately. Castro, of course, is very charming. These guys are all charming, right? Somewhere I have my notes from it. It was a hell of a meeting. It was four hours, with interpretation, but Mark also knew Spanish. That helped. 

Castro was wearing his silk combat fatigues. He offered us a cigar, which I smoked half of. I still have the other half—a terrible cigar. He smoked the second-rate stuff. The Cohibas, incidentally, which are now the thing, were not the thing in those days. They were the presentation cigars, but they’re nowhere near the best. That’s what they give to tourists and dignitaries. That’s the Cuban cigar. I used to smoke, but I haven’t for 20 years. The best cigar of all is a Montecristo No. 2. A Cuban cigar is one of the seven or eight great pleasures in life…One of Castro’s first questions was, “How are my Cubans doing up in Miami? I’m very proud of my Cubans in Miami. Cubans make the best Americans.”

Dr. Janet Heininger: Was Kennedy planning a trip?

Hunter: No, he wasn’t. Mark and I had this in the back of our minds, obviously, when we went. Incidentally, when we came back, we had a lot of souvenirs, including a bunch of wonderful coins, American coins, because nothing new had been there since about 1960. For example, there was the twin of my father’s 1939 Ford still running. It was like a time warp. When we came out and we had changed our—whatever the currency is—back to dollars and they gave us change, they gave us these 100-year-old dimes and quarters, things like that. So we went back to Mexico City, and we had all these souvenirs, including cigars. We went to the U.S. Embassy and debriefed. You always debrief. Kennedy was extremely good about always debriefing at the Embassy…

Heininger: But he wasn’t planning a trip.

Hunter: No, but we were trying to get him to go, and he kept hemming and hawing. He has good instincts. That’s why he’s the politician…But he hemmed and hawed and said, “No, not right,” about going to Cuba. Then a few months later, Castro invaded Angola…In fact I am convinced, having watched this issue now since its beginning, that Castro has relied upon the émigrés in Florida to prevent a reconciliation with the United States. Every time it looks like relations might improve, he does something to make it impossible. I believe Castro would have been gone decades ago if we had opened up, like what happened with Central Europe and elsewhere. It’s changing in Florida now, but the émigrés have helped keep Castro in power…I don’t know whether money gets funneled to some of them for their campaigns, but certainly, every time it has gotten to the point where relations with Cuba might change, Castro has done something like that to make it impossible…I had talked to Kissinger about it a couple of times, and it was clear that there was something in the air, then Castro killed it. I’ve always believed that was the main reason that he sent troops to Angola. I mean, he didn’t have any other reason to do it, except maybe some more money from the Soviets. They welcomed the cutting off of a chance for U.S.-Cuban rapprochement, with their competition with the United States. 

Bryan Craig is a Senior Researcher for the Presidential Oral History Program

Date edited: 12/01/2016 (2:17PM)


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